Home > Death and dying, Emotions > Missionaries and unresolved grief

Missionaries and unresolved grief

tearsAs Christians, according to Paul, we do “not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thes 5:13) Why then do Christians in general and missionaries in particular not do a better  job at grieving our losses?  This is a huge topic and one that will require more than one post to adequately address the topic.  Maybe not the best topic to do my first post in the last eight months!

What piqued my interst was reading That’s Not Fatigue, Dealing with Unresolved Grief by Frederick Jansohn in the digital version of the Jan 2013 EMQ.

As Christians, we have tremendous resources for grieving in the church as well as in our families and of course because of the hope of resurrection that Paul wrote about in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians 15.  The church, according to Rob Moll in The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come has historically helped Christians to die well.  After reading Moll’s book and seeing that today’s church could do much more than they are now doing , I could write much more about that but hopefully that will lead to another post!

 Jansohn writes about the damage that can occur when we fail to grieve.  We know we should grieve the big issues like the death of a loved one (I would say we often do not grieve well in these larger issues) but we also face smaller ambiguous losses which require grieving. Pauline Boss has written extensively on this and her book, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief was helpful to me (another post!!).  For many cross-cultural missionaries (and I am in this group), we may not have the assistance and support and time and permission to grieve both our clear losses and our ambiguous losses. Jansohn writes,

Missionary life, too, can bring a lot of bruises. As a matter of fact, if the missionary lifestyle were a sport, it would be an extreme sport. Sure, such a “rough-and-tumble” lifestyle can be exciting and rewarding, but there are a lot of bumps as a matter of course and we ignore their accumulation to our own peril. If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves depleted of the resources necessary to live a normal life, and it may come as a surprise that the effects of these small and sometimes unseen losses have become so large that they can’t be avoided any longer.

Missionaries are especially susceptible to this. The same deep commitment that most missionaries feel toward their calling can actually lead them to suppress feelings of loss and either avoid or shorten the grieving process as they press forward in serving the Lord with alacrity and fervor.

What are the consequences to missionaries (to anyone really) when they fail to grieve their losses?  Again Jansohn provides some symptoms of unresolved grief.

Burnout—no vision, no desire: “What difference is it going to make if I do this?” “I don’t even feel like going to work anymore.”
Marriage issues—lack of communication, romance, intimacy: “I feel like we’re growing apart, but I don’t have the energy to do anything about it.”
Parent/child relationships—lack of communication, nurturing, discipling: “I just can’t deal with them right now.” “I just need to be alone. They (spouse) can deal with it.”
Unreasonable emotions: Sometimes a person can go for days and not get out of a chair. He or she may have a “quick fuse” that can trigger intense, unreasonable anger with little provocation.
Lack of hope: It’s hard for the person to consider doing something in the future when he or she doesn’t have enough energy to deal with today.
Lack of forgiveness: This person has typically either refused to forgive or to be forgiven.
Blocking out the past: This person may refuse even good memories in order to avoid bad ones.

So, believing that the path to healing is through not around, the solutions to some of our struggles above may lie in the grieving process. No amount of time off or vacation or even job change will facilitate changes that occur when we admit our need to grieve and begin to move through the process of grieving.

Question before God: for what do I need to grieve today? In order for me to move through the grieving process, what needs to change in my life?

  1. Nancy
    March 20, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    This was worth waiting for. I look forward to the related posts.

    • March 20, 2013 at 4:46 pm

      Thanks for the encouraging words.

  2. March 21, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    Thank you! Still processing some of those loses.

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